South African universities began to jostle for position after last week's release of a government report urging a major shake-up of higher education.
The report, by the Council on Higher Education, proposes a bottom-heavy, three-tier system of undergraduate, "mixed" and research institutions. It also suggests mergers involving up to 23 of the country's 36 universities and technikons to cut costs, meet skills shortages and overcome apartheid-created duplication.
Education minister Kader Asmal will use the report and a series of consultations to draft a national plan that will be presented to cabinet in September.
The report proposes three categories of institutions in a pyramid system. At the bottom would be lots of "bedrock" institutions focusing on undergraduate study, with some postgraduate courses up to masters level. In the middle would be "comprehensive postgraduate" institutions offering first degrees, extensive honours and masters and some doctoral courses. At the top would be a handful of "extensive postgraduate" research universities.
Other proposals include lengthening first degrees from three to four years to cater for the academic development of students from sub-standard schools and lifting a moratorium on institutions introducing new distance courses. "The report offers a way of thinking more rationally about higher education," said Peter Vale, acting vice-rector of the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
"Unfortunately, when dealing with universities you always have to deal with hierarchies. The immediate effect of categories is to create class warfare. This may be a nomenclature problem, which is why the council has emphasised the centrality of bedrock institutions," Professor Vale said.
Jonathan Jansen, dean of education at the University of Pretoria, fears that the report's focus on undergraduate study will split teaching and research. He said it would be "extremely sad" if established institutions were stripped of some programmes.
The council rejected closing institutions, opting instead for "combinations" that in some cases might only involve sharing management while institutions remain otherwise independent.
The report recommends that six historically black institutions, each with fewer than 4,000 students, should not remain independent. Top universities forced to merge with poorly resourced and managed institutions fear slipping into a "lower" tier.
Many mergers will be complex and controversial. One such is that mooted between the universities of Rhodes, Fort Hare and Transkei in the Eastern Cape. Total closure of Fort Hare - the alma mater of many liberation struggle leaders - would be a hot potato for the African National Congress government. The university holds vital records of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement, along with the personal papers of Govan Mbeki, father of president Thabo Mbeki, as well as those of Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.
A further difficulty is illustrated by the three universities in the Cape Town area - Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Western Cape. The first two are historically white and strong in research, while UWC is the best of the country's historically disadvantaged universities, with one in five students postgraduates.
UWC wants to be the one "black" institution in the top tier. Professor Vale said: "We want to be a research university and to be put on what the report calls a 'development strategy', which would come with funding to sharpen our research." But the province does not need three research universities.
The proposed merger between Natal and Durban-Westville (UDW) is another potentially difficult one. It is opposed by Natal vice-chancellor Brenda Gourley. She supports collaboration but expressed "extreme scepticism about forced mergers that have not taken cognisance of the different strengths, characteristics, capacities, missions and histories of institutions involved".
Merger discussions between the two institutions have got nowhere, partly because each wants to lead. Natal - one of the top three research universities with 22,000 students, 8,000 of them postgraduate - rejects the idea of UDW taking the lead. "What's in it for us? It's like a frog trying to devour a python," said a Natal spokesman.
If the two merged, the new institution could fall into the "comprehensive postgraduate" tier. That would compromise research and doctoral work, and South Africa's most populous province needs both strong research and lots of first degree places.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in the report is that it does not say where money for restructuring will come from.
This is crucial, Professor Vale said. "Achieving the changes suggested will take strong leadership, careful husbandry of resources and financial support."
But none of these can be guaranteed: the education department lacks the capacity to manage change on the scale envisaged and has no money to drive the process. The report makes no concrete suggestions about how new money might be found.
Rather, it admits: "It will not be possible to address every dimension of reconfiguration and pursue all the combinations at once. Implementation must be carefully planned and rolled out over a number of phases, which combine goals, strategies and human and financial resources. Overall, achieving a new higher education landscape with the qualities that are desired is likely to take a decade."